It has been more than a month since the Chengdu J-20, China’s first stealth fighter prototype, made its debut in grainy Internet photos. The 70-foot-long J-20 flew for the first time earlier this month, and has now apparently embarked on what could be an at least eight-year test program to prepare it for mass production.
All over the world, governments are reacting. The Pentagon urged calm, stressing the continuing long lead U.S. aerospace has over any competitor. But Vice Adm. Jack Dorsett, head of U.S. Navy intelligence, admitted Washington has at times ‘under-estimated’ the speed and effectiveness of Chinese military developments. Taiwan, in an apparent panic, arranged a public test of its air defences and reeled as decrepit missiles malfunctioned and plunged into the sea. Meanwhile, India heralded the operational debut of its first (non-stealthy) home-grown fighter and plowed ahead on developing a stealthy follow-on.
For all that, no one knows for sure how advanced the J-20 truly is, or what Beijing intends to use it for. Observers all over the world have pored over available photos and videos hoping to glean insights into the fighter’s design. One Australian think tank even imagined a future Taiwan war scenario entirely built around a massive force of J-20s sweeping the skies clear of American warplanes.
But there’s one key question no one has really asked. Indeed, it might be the single most important question of all — how much does the J-20 cost? No one knows for sure. Analyst Andrew Erickson has guessed $110 million per plane. That compares favourably with the cost of US stealth fighters. Not counting development, a single F-22 costs around $130 million. Again not counting development, the newer F-35 is itself around $100 million per copy.